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What Makes Comedy Funny?

I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about what makes comedy funny.  I’ve always thought that comedy was harder to write than drama.  Because with drama you have to know the rules of good storytelling and you have to follow those rules.  But with comedy you have to know the rules AND then you have to break those rules.  I believe that’s why our great comedians are also great dramatic actors.  Like Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg.  You have to be a good dramatic actor/storyteller before you break the rules and create comedy.

Comedy comes from pain.  (Puns are the only exceptional to this rule.)  The more painful something is, the funnier it is.  This is why some comedy could be labeled as cruel.  I think Groucho Marx said it best when he told a magazine reporter,  “All comedy comes from pain.  To illustrate, consider this…  You can take a young man and dress him up as an old woman.  Put him in a wheelchair.  Push him down a hill where he runs into a brick wall.  That’s funny.  But, you take a REAL old lady, put her in a wheelchair, push her down the same hill into the same brick wall… and THAT’S comedy.”

Groucho also had his own hit TV show, “You Bet Your Life,” a quiz show of the 1950’s.   He was legendary for his verbal play with the contestants.  One time he was interviewing a female contestant who told him she had been married eight years, and she had nine children.  To which Groucho quipped, “Holy cow, lady, I like my cigar, but I like to take it out of my mouth once in awhile.”  That was the last episode of the show.  And if you don’t think that was painful, just talk to the contestant who was humiliated on live TV…

So, here’s the number one comedy rule you need to ALWAYS use:  Keep it real and make it painful.

The number two rule?  EVERYTHING is funny.  But more on that another time.

Comments on: "What Makes Comedy Funny?" (4)

  1. I love that Groucho cigar quote. So much for “a more innocent” time…

  2. You could describe comedy as painful, I suppose. Some comedy is definitely painful. I recently got a collection of Looney Tunes for my kids, and the Road Runner & Wiley Coyote skits definitely derive all of their comedy from the pain the Wiley Coyote undergoes.

    But I don’t know that I’d describe ALL comedy as painful. I think it’s often “just wrong.” For instance, I’m on a committee for my daughter’s school, and during a meeting, one of the other parents gets a phone call. He checks to see who it is and then says, “Oh it’s just my [11 year old son] Jacob. He’s probably calling to say that Becca [the babysitter] won’t let him watch any porn.” Everyone laughs. He adds, “I’m just kidding.” So I say, “Yeah, I mean, Becca ALWAYS lets him watch porn, right?” Everyone laughs again.

    I don’t think pain was caused by anyone in the above anecdote–even if it were true that A) Jacob wanted to watch porn and Becca wouldn’t let him [and let’s be honest, likely true that he does want to watch porn and that if he voiced this to Becca, she wouldn’t let him] or B) Becca did let him watch porn. It wouldn’t be *good* since Jacob is 11 years old, but I’m hard pressed to find any *pain* in the jokes. It’s just, well, wrong.

  3. We’re talking semantics here. Pain comes in many forms. Not just physical. Pain can be mental, emotional, etc. Pain also has degrees, ranging from just uncomfortable to pure anguish to embarrassment.

  4. Ugg! I love comedy, but I hate slapstick humor. I can see how slapstick comes from pain, and I thought the Groucho Marx example was slightly funny. I guess i have a different funny bone? I find wit and dry humor laughable. But, I don’t laugh at all watching Airplane or any movie derivative like that. The movie The Princes Bride had some moments. The sword scene and switching hands moment, and his extremely fluid and long Spanish name….was funny. But when Billy Crystal shows up in that film I’m bored.

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